By Sharif Ullah Baig
Pakistan is grappling to contain the ever-escalating figure of the out of school children which is currently ranking second in the world. According to the UNICEF reports, an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not attending the schools which is representing 44 per cent of the total population in this age group. The current federal government demonstrated a tangible commitment and intention not only to highlight but also to combat this gigantic challenge however, the scenario remains murky today, and a sign of improvement is yet to be seen. Due largely to the influence of government commitment, the international community through international and national NGOs continued to support the cause of reducing the number of the out of school children in the country. The international community invested millions and billions for launching aggressive campaigns in various parts of the country to attract the out of school children into the formal education system. Community awareness drives, child facilitation packages, school, and system facilitations and in some cases parent facilitations were included in these campaigns. Despite these aggressive interventions no visible changes could be achieved so far, and for various reasons the encounter is further aggravating.
The pool of the out of school children in the country is mostly filled by the economically lower and lower-middle class section of the society. Therefore, mainstreaming the children from this pool can only be materialized into a free education prospect and the public sector schooling system becomes the only option. However, the public sector schooling system is struggling to accommodate the increasing number of the out of school children due to its own challenges. Poor infrastructural issues such as shortage of classrooms and furniture, shortage of teachers and governance concerns are some of the issues the current public sector schooling education is facing in the country. At the policy level, the public sector schooling system is bound to abide by the slogan of free education for all however, scarcity of physical and human resources is practically making it almost impossible for the schools to accommodate the mounting number of the out of school children. The schools are expected to enroll out of school children in their age-appropriate grades whereas, no make-up and swift transition mechanism is in place in the schools due to the lack of resources. Hence, under policy and system pressure the schools are overtly welcoming the out of school children but covertly they do not. As a result, the children enrolled in grade 2 above are struggling to adjust and accommodate with the regular curriculum obligations and most of them are leaving the schools by the end of the academic year, jumping back into the ever-enlarging pool of the out of school children which is boosted by the rapid population growth. Hence, we have created a cycle of launching a campaign, enrolling children, and reporting figures every year whereas, most of them are falling back into the pool. UNICEF report claims that nearly 10.7 million boys and 8.6 million girls are enrolled at the primary level and this drops to 3.6 million boys and 2.8 million girls at the lower secondary level. Next year we restart from the point where we had started last year therefore, I would call it a yearly reaping of the crop of the out of school children and facilitating a new harvest for the next year. Despite rigorous efforts we are unable to come out of this vicious cycle to improve the overall scenario and big picture of the out of school children in the country.
In the context of Gilgit-Baltistan, we have examples of some districts where the literacy rate was as low as 20% in 1970s and 80s which has been improved by 90% today. These districts are at the brink of achieving the milestone of 1% out of school children at least at primary education level. Experience is the biggest teacher that can teach you priceless lessons. No campaign had been launched for enrolling out of school children in grade 2 and above, and no child and parent facilitations were made in those districts except for parent awareness which was inherently built in the social system. Parents were made aware to the extent that they prioritized the education of their children in their lives. A long-term approach was followed focusing the early childhood age where it was ensured that every child of this age is admitted into the traditional Kachi and Paki grades (inception grades) in public sector schools, later after a decade, into the ECED education. An informal mechanism of social pressure was strengthened to ensure that all children enrolled at their early ages do not drop out at any stage of schooling process. This is how the communities have followed a long-term approach focusing the early ages and have successfully uprooted this evil of the out of school once for all, leaving no place for yearly harvesting.
These valuable experiences are worth enough to study and learn important lessons with an intention of scaling-up. As a nation we need to follow a long-term three-dimensional approach focusing the early ages, parent awareness and beefing up of the resources in public sector schools. Surprisingly, the current approach is pay least attention to the early ages, not considering them out of school children. We need to understand that this age bracket is the biggest source of producing out of school children every year. Schools with their limited resources will happily accept this age bracket as they will easily be part of the regular system without the extra efforts of make-up classes and swift transition arrangements. We need to enhance the parent awareness to an extent where they believe education as the top priority of their lives. Finally, we are forcing the public sector schools to accommodate the increasing number of the out of school children but are paying least attention to the capacity aspect of these schools. Without beefing the resources in these schools, children will enroll from the front gate and drop out from the back door every year. Following this long-term approach, we can uproot this evil and come out of the vicious cycle of yearly harvesting.